The Story of Methodism in Oxford
(See also the new Heritage website, Wesleysoxford)
In 1729 a small group of students began meeting in Oxford to pray, study, and express their faith through compassionate social outreach. This so-called ‘Holy Club’, led by the brothers John and Charles Wesley, was just the beginning of the movement that would evolve into the Methodist Church, which today has 80 million members around the world.
The first Methodist meeting-house in Oxford was in rented rooms in the building now numbered 32-34, New Inn Hall Street.
This still belongs to Brasenose College. A plaque on the wall commemorates the fact that John Wesley preached there on 14th July 1783 and on several later occasions. Wesley described ‘the new preaching-house at Oxford’ as ‘a lightsome, cheerful place.’
In spite of local opposition and fluctuating support, it was eventually decided to build a new chapel further down the street and on the opposite side of the road, just behind where Wesley Memorial stands today. The foundation stone was laid in May 1817 and the chapel opened for worship in February 1818. It became the centre of the Oxford Wesleyan Methodist Circuit, with outposts gradually developing in the surrounding villages and small towns.
In the middle years of the nineteenth century other strands of Methodism appeared in Oxford. Both Primitive and United Methodist traditions had circuits with city centre and rural chapels.
Some sixty years after the completion of the first Wesleyan chapel it was decided that new premises were needed. As well as accommodating a growing congregation, it was needed to emphasise the presence of Methodism in the city as Oxford University agreed to admit Nonconformist students for the first time. As a result, the present Wesley Memorial Church was opened for worship in October 1878.
In 1932 the three main branches of British Methodism united to form the present Methodist Church of Great Britain. By 1941 there was a single Oxford Circuit. In the meantime, a new suite of ancillary premises had been added to Wesley Memorial. The large hall and other meeting rooms, opened in 1932, proved ideal for the great expansion in student work which followed the Second World War. The John Wesley Society, the student Methodist society, reached a membership of 400 in the post-war period.
Nails from building Wesley Memorial in 1878 and a miniature communion chalice, fashioned from original wood from the pews
At the time of the centenary of the present building, a debate took place about the future of the church. Among other ideas, the possibilities of amalgamating with another city centre church, or relocating to the suburbs, were discussed. In the event it was agreed that we should remain where we are, and respond positively and actively to the unique opportunities for mission and service arising from our prime site in the heart of Oxford.Since then, there has been a determined and successful policy to make our church more open to the community, and to alter and adapt the premises to meet new circumstances and developing challenges. This work continues today.
Worship: before music editions of hymnbooks were published, organists in the C19th used manuscript music like this example from Wesley Memorial